The provocatively titled "Surrealism: Desire Unbound" arrives at the staid Metropolitan Museum in New York this week, Feb. 6-May 12, 2002, complete with $20 "Surrealist Eye" t-shirts and coffee mugs, a limited-edition, faux-fur-covered $120 catalogue and 300 art works (and books) by more than 60 artists. The pictures are all hung rather high -- "Met blockbuster style," said Surrealist expert Lewis Kachur -- on walls painted yellow-gold, robin's egg blue and other hues-of-the-moment, and the carpet has been taken up, leaving a lovely black marble, "anticipating the wear and tear of huge crowds," said Lancet art critic Phyllis Tuchman. Another oddity, presumably in keeping with the subject, are the galleries whose walls are lined with clear plastic vitrine-like stalls, themselves lined with white fake fur and filled with letters, manuscript sheets, drawings and photos.
With all that fur, one might wonder as to the absence of Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup, which is owned by the Museum of Modern Art and made it to London, where the exhibition was organized, but not across town. It's in the other big Surrealism show organized by Werner Spies for the Pompidou. Oh well. At any rate, the Met exhibition designer's feverish efforts are understandable, considering that all those cabinet pictures seem out of place, too small and intimate for the mass venue on Fifth Avenue.
Otherwise, what can be said about the show except that it's h-o-t? A few paintings are standouts, especially the exquisitely misshapen 1928 pink nude by Salvador Dalí from the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., the pair of large Giorgio de Chirico enigma paintings from 1914 in the first gallery and the several works by Andre Masson. And the photos, drawings, books and ephemera are especially contemporary, and some are especially kinky. Met curator Bill Lieberman is to be commended for his balls.
"The Surrealists were first to pursue the ideas of the Marquis de Sade, who discovered the repression of desire!" proclaimed Valery Oisteanu, something of a Surrealist himself and writer for a magazine called New York Arts. At the press preview, he drew attention to a display case that contains a branding iron for the mark SADE. During a 1959 ritual, the artist Jean Benoît, the painter Matta jumped up, spellbound, and branded himself on the heart and had to be rushed to the hospital. "Penance for having an affair with the wife of Gorky," insisted Oisteanu. "who was driven to suicide!"
The Surrealists were into free love, no matter who got jealous. So French. For instance, Max Ernst, a devastatingly handsome old letch at 45, took off with a rich, 19-year-old art student -- Leonora Carrington (she later suffered a nervous breakdown). Duchamp was in a famous menage a trois with three women in the early 20s. Frida Kahlo divorced Diego Rivera in 1940, and remarried him several months later. And everyone knows about that Picasso fellow.
The Met's original backers for the exhibition are said to have turned puritanical and pulled out, according to a story that is being widely repeated in art circles. Not so, said a Met spokesman. The show, which was sponsored by Morgan Stanley in London, is a separate operation in New York, where it is being funded by Met patrons Jane and Robert Carroll. Thank them if you see them.
Why do a sexy Surrealism blockbuster now, after shows like "L'Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism" at the Corcoran Gallery in 1985 took the curatorial investigation and presentation of this period so much further? Perhaps the raucous eroticism of the yBas had something to do with the Tate Modern's interest. Or perhaps the Met has finally discovered its own subterranean currents of desire.
The Surrealist impulse is all over town. On view in New York for the first time, at PaceWildenstein on West 25th Street, is The Hoerengracht, a walk-in tableau of a kind of courtyard in Amsterdam's Red Light District, complete with scantily clad mannequins, built in 1984-88 by the late California assemblagist Ed Kienholz and his wife and artistic collaborator Nancy Reddin Kienholz. It's rather dark and haunted-looking, and goofy too, with loads of dried glue running down the window panes. "Hoerengracht," as Marco Livingstone points out in the accompanying catalogue, means "the whore's canal," and puns on the name of a real Amsterdam canal, the Herengracht, or "gentlemen's canal."
The show includes several "drawings" for the piece, which are painting-like wall assemblages that include a small red light and suggestively frame elements like images of a bed, or a mannequin’s hand grasping a doorknob. Their price ranges from $95,000 to $250,000. The Hoerengracht itself is "reserved" and the price is not given.
At Howard Greenberg in SoHo is an exhibition of erotic and Surrealist photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who began attending Surrealist meetings in Paris at age 17. Many of the photos are his famous snaps of streetwalkers, whose comic yet erotic expressions recall the stylings of both Goya and Pedro Almodovar.
But even more exciting is the show of works at P.P.O.W. by Carolee Schneemann, the performance artist who is widely credited with taking female sexuality away from the mute artist's model and giving it the kind of active jouissance that now is considered a woman's birthright. Her legendary Meat Joy Kinetic Theater, a 1964 Happening that premiered in Paris at the Festival of Free Expression and subsequently wowed them at the Judson Church on New York's Lower East Side, featured eight naked people plus chicken, fish, sausage and other props in a writhing orgiastic mess. "I just picked the people off the street," Schneemann said at the opening. "There was a balloon salesman, a poet... they had to go through two weeks of intensive practice to learn to handle the meat!"
Also on view is a grid of vulvic images (with fans to cool them!) from 1992 and a photograph of her famous "interior scroll" performance, in which she stands naked reading a text on a slim paper scroll she draws from her vagina (this is a later recreation; the original was only recently purchased by California collector Peter Norton). Several new pieces, using an evocative photograph of the artist kissing her cat, are called Infinity Kisses, and are based on an Egyptian story about a girl sharing the breath of life with a lion cub and becoming an oracular priestess. A six-minute videotape copy of Meat Joy is available for $250.
The café installation, which includes placemats and a menu as well as new wash drawings on the walls, debuted at the 2000 Havana Biennial, and has appeared at Fran Magee's Gallery 106 in Austin and the University Art Museum in Albany. Future stops include galleries in Key West, Montreal and Tokyo. The ersatz electronics, which are beautifully carved and decorated in "Mango Tec" style with palm fronds and other island motifs, are priced at $3,000.
In the bathroom, on a screen set up in the tub, is a seven-second video loop by the young Los Angeles artist Michael Dee. It's a punched-up snippet of Taxi Driver, a slow pan in on a glass of Alka-Selzer. Sound is very much a focus of the piece, most of it a hissing white noise, which at the end is overlaid by the close-up sound of bubbles popping. The trance effect, as the artist called it, is broken by the faint noise of a truck honking, and the cycle begins again. The videos have an autobiographical element; a second tape shows the slowed-down melting of a pill for Crohn's Disease, was made when the artist was dating a woman with terminal intestinal cancer (who in the end recovered).